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Linda Button| Longreads | July 4, 2023 | 15 minutes (3,167 words)
She filled our lives with good food,
chutzpah, laughter, and love.
Enh. I could sense Momo looking over my shoulder as I typed, her head wrapped in a bright coral scarf. I was relieved she had put on weight since death. The final month her skin had hung on her, a size too big. She was back to her firm, long-legged self, her dark eyes bright with interest.
“Enh?!” I said.
I like where you’re going, but the words aren’t right.
This was what we had always done for each other—poked and questioned and haggled over art. Still, I felt the pressure of the deadline. “Your husband needs this in four days. I‘ve got to get the ball rolling.”
Momo shrugged. You’re the writer.
What did she know? Inside I harbored a delicious fantasy that my words would cause the audience—Momo’s friends and sisters, her husband, Marty, and their daughter—to ooooh at how I had captured her gusto on a tombstone.
For most of my career I have written ad copy. The work suits me. Constraints. The single page of paper. Brevity. Choose as few words as possible. Let the visuals tell the story. Conjure emotion in compressed space and time. Here, then, was the perfect writing assignment for me. A three- by two-foot billboard. Thirty words, max. My business partner’s epitaph.
But unlike advertising, lofted into the airwaves to evaporate, this project would be carved into granite for eternity. I yearned to create a gravestone that would sing through the ages, that would capture the joie de vivre that was my partner. One year later, Momo’s death still had me reeling. I had worked with her for two decades. I loved her. I considered Marty, her husband of only a few years, a latecomer to the Momo party. Now, for this assignment, he was also the client. He had final say, after all: When it comes to customs of death, spouses top all others. According to Jewish tradition, the time had come to inscribe the grave marker. A literal deadline.
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Marty had procrastinated for months. So, at the request of friends, I was pitching in. The final words were due by the end of the week. Could I deliver genius in five days?
Momo was right. The copy was “enh.” I emailed the lines to Marty anyway—She filled our lives with good food, chutzpah, laughter, and love—and hoped he would embrace it.
Momo and I had run an ad agency together. She was a seize-the-day daughter of Holocaust survivors; I was bred from stoic Yankee stock. When our agency dwindled to two, we embraced our differences and renamed the business Tooth and Nail. She, the smile. Me, driving home the point. We spread out giant sheets of paper on her dining room floor for brainstorms, plotted campaigns on her sofa, pilfered images off the internet, fought, competed, stepped over each other’s words, slashed ideas, fretted over stubborn, uninspired clients, and laughed about our men.
In the early days, on train rides home from New York to Boston, Momo would find a table for four and unfurl her coat onto the adjoining seat so no one would join us, while I tucked my backpack around my shoes, not wanting to take an inch more than I had paid for. The coastline scrolled by. She counseled me on my imploding marriage; I marveled over her athletic dating. “Who should I choose?” she asked. “The heart surgeon who’s analytical, or the brain expert who’s all heart?”
“Which one brings you joy?” I knew enough to ask that question. Momo chased pleasure, splurging on business class and nice hotels. She spent far more energy on my happiness than I did. She gifted me photographs of tulips exploding in red and orange, a painting of a woman treading a gray ocean, her nose barely above the surface, as if Momo saw beauty in me but also my struggles. She extended a life raft. She cooked homemade matzoh ball soup steaming with ginger and fennel, she listened deeply, as the best therapists do. I left our conversations feeling both filled and emptied, cleansed and heard.
Finally, she chose Marty, the psychiatrist who strummed classical guitar and wrote her love letters from his neglected house near the shore.
Then, the mammogram revealed a 2.2-centimeter lump. Cue the mastectomies, chemo and radiation, wigs and thinning eyebrows. Momo rejected that as her entire story. For seven years after her diagnosis, Momo made even cancer an adventure. She wrote a blog.
Am I upset over the possibility of losing a breast? Not really. I’ve had a terrific pair for 48 years. My girls have given me and many boys great pleasure.
She treated loss as a punch line, no topic too intimate.
On Monday I took a shower and quickly realized that I won’t be scheduling any bikini waxes in the near future.
In advertising we start with the audience and consider how we want to make them feel. Who would trudge the slope to visit Momo’s gravesite each year? Her loyal circle of friends, surely. Her three older sisters, each a variation of Momo: artistic, smart, empathetic. And, of course, her 13-year-old daughter and round-shouldered Marty, his AirPods filled with classical guitar. I imagined her quiet, sarcastic daughter cresting the hill and I wanted to reward her with a smile, to feel the warmth, sechel, and humor of her mom embracing her.
Amazingly, when I look back, I did not follow my own best practices. I did no research on tombstones, threw out no wide net. I suffered from tunnel vision—exactly what I warn young writers never to do—and got stuck on a single idea. Had I bothered, I would have discovered a wide field of possibilities; it turns out that epitaphs trace the arc of history with tales of society, legacies, and stories of power and love.
From traditional Jewish blessings . . .
“May her soul be bound in the binding of life.”
and Japanese poetry . . .
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
. . . to good old sardonic American.
Here lies Butch, we planted him raw,
he was quick on the trigger, but slow on the draw.
We could have honored Momo’s philosophy, She was bubbles in the champagne of life, or captured her perseverance: Grit and Grace, or something risqué, pulled from her own blog. “I won’t be scheduling any bikini waxes in the near future.”
I could have offered Marty an array of choices, mocked up what the stone would look like, handed him a scotch, and nudged him in the right direction. Instead, I worried and clung to one idea. Grief stuffed me into a small, hardened box.
I was thinking of something more inspiring.
Marty’s response waited for me the next morning. In advertising, where writing is a team sport, my ego had long ago shrunk to a chickpea. Still. Ouch. He sent examples of quotes he considered inspiring.
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” —Dr. Seuss
“In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” —Abraham Lincoln
“The pain passes. The beauty remains.” —Renoir
My stomach curdled with disappointment. I hated when clients reached for clichés. Also, I was pretty sure Old Abe never said that. Momo leaned across and squinted at the text. She turned to me with a look between constipation and impatience: What do these dead white guys have to do with a hot, middle-aged diva?
“Right?!” I nodded even though I got where Marty was coming from. When a star collapses and sucks up light and life you need big mother constellations like Abe Lincoln and Dr. Seuss on your side. Marty was crazy in love with Momo. He proposed in her throes of dying and adopted her daughter. Not so crazy.
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But he wasn’t there when Momo first brought her daughter home from China, the same year I gave birth to my youngest child. He hadn’t watched our kids grow up to be best friends. He wasn’t with us, looking down on giant sheets of paper, pulling ideas from the air, creating a company while taking turns with after-school pickup. Where was he when we got The History Channel clients snockered on vodka at a creative presentation on Russian tzars, or when Momo snored through a conference call, and we claimed it was a leaf blower?
My hand hovered over the keyboard. Momo was still making that face. I marshaled my diplomacy and shot a note back to Marty.
The Renoir quote is lovely—haven’t heard it before. How about this:
She filled our lives with chutzpah, laughter, and love.
“The pain passes. The beauty remains.” —Renoir
Marty didn’t respond. The day ticked by.
In her last month I had wheeled Momo around the block, past her front yard where a gardener friend had fashioned a river of smooth stones. Momo did not admire the curving white through her lawn, or the blaze of yellow leaves outside her windows. She curled inward with pain. Now that it was my turn to lavish her with support and comfort, I had no words. I spoke to her as if to a child. “Isn’t that tree beautiful!”
“Take me home,” she said.
Her office had been turned into a sickroom, a large bed and TV at one end. Her sisters had arrived from Israel, Dominica, and Maine and tightened around her. They filled the kitchen with music, took turns dressing her, served up platters of hummus and opinions. They, and her other friends, somehow understood the rituals of grief, care, and mitzvah. Their religion was seeped in loss and optimism. They practiced simple, concrete gestures. But I didn’t even know what to do with my hands. I felt useless, as if I had gone from insider to outsider. I’ve been here all along, I wanted to say to them. Momo and I, we helped each other. She offered me refuge from my unraveling marriage. I gave her purpose.
The night she passed, I left my phone in the living room. When I woke, messages from her friends and sisters spilled down my screen. Voice mails. Texts. “Come to the hospital!” “Hurry!” I had slept while my friend died.
Another day, nothing.
“He hates it,” I said.
Oh, you know Marty. Momo waved her hand. He’s a BFD at the hospital. He’s probably curing ADHD and seasonal depression.
“After years of pounding me on deadlines, you’re giving him a pass?”
He’s a genius, they need more time.
Ouch, I thought. Double whammy.
The morning of the deadline, my email dinged.
This is what I woke up with at 4 AM:
Mother, wife, negotiator, artist, cook, adventurer.
Forever bold, stylish, and brave.
“The pain passes. The beauty remains.” —Renoir
Lists. The final refuge of the desperate, the last gasp of clients when they’d run out of ideas or lacked imagination. Marty had reduced Momo to a string of nouns, adjectives, and commas, as if that defined her. Plus, Wife was the second word?
Momo beamed. Stylish. Adventurer! Marty’s so good with words, isn’t he?
That’s what love does, I muttered to myself. It infuses mediocre writing with sentiment. “He left off sister. Friend!”
Momo frowned. Gotta include them. Maybe we need an extra tall slab. Fit everything in.
I pounded a response on the keyboard.
Oh, those 4am thoughts!
I would add friend, sister, businesswoman . . . and the list gets long. Maybe focus on how she made us feel? xoxo
How did Momo make me feel? She had taught me that moments live in the flickering gold light of a beech tree and a bowl of warm soup. That loss waits for all of us, so we’d better wring happiness from every second. Death had robbed me of my witness, my confidant, the most honest friend I ever had. She never lied to me about my situation. Or herself. How many lovers have you had? I had asked her when I started dating again. She looked off to the corner of the restaurant, counting. “Sixty? Eighty? I had fun.” Would I ever squeeze so much out of life? She left nothing on the table.
What did I give her? My doggedness. My drive. My craving for partnership, as if I was born incomplete. I gave her my standing in the industry. My fierce competitiveness. My soundless, grateful love.
I went to make coffee. Marty’s response waited in my inbox.
It doesn’t work to say how she made us feel. We need to convey who she was. Funny, I left off sister and friend as her middle sister thought that it would be unnecessary, but it’s a key part of who Momo was. I was hoping that negotiator and artist would cover who she was as a businessperson.
Off to the eye doctor.
Ah, he was pulling in Momo’s sisters. A classic zone defense move by the client. I poured contempt onto the page.
New glasses? Hope you’re seeing more clearly now. Give me a call . . .
What do you think, Momo? I looked around the room and discovered her missing. Marty never responded either. But a tombstone deadline does not melt away like some canceled ad campaign.
The morning of the unveiling broke crisp and bright, the kind of April day we long for after the gray length of winter. A brightly colored square, rippling in the sunlight, waited for us. Someone had swathed the tombstone in scarves. The wind lifted the corners, flirting and winking, to reveal edges of letters. What was written there? When I had asked Marty the night before at a gathering in their home, he shrugged and said, “Something like in the email.”
Momo had handpicked her site. Even the year before, as we tipped clumps of earth onto her casket, weeping, we admired the location. It faced a protected edge of the graveyard.
Now, a year later, grass had grown over the mound. The trees plumped with buds and sunlight flickered through new green leaves. The rabbi, a short, bearded man, gestured for us to draw close. Marty stood with their daughter, his arm around her. I expected Momo to leap out from behind the stone and join us.
We each read something. I had to borrow a quote that morning, too overwhelmed to think. Words. All my life I have wrestled with, debated, and polished them. But how much had they ever mattered? Momo’s sisters approached the stone and unfastened the tape that secured the scarves. My shoulders tensed and my hand squeezed a damp Kleenex in my pocket. As the coral silks pulled away, the epitaph revealed itself from the bottom up. The words were indistinct, unreadable, and I cursed the stonecutter. Then I pushed the tears from my eyes and read the final, stubborn, unfixable inscription.
Mother. Wife. Sister. Friend.
Negotiator. Artist. Cook. Adventurer.
Forever Bold, Stylish, and Brave.
“The pain passes. The Beauty remains” —Renoir.
November 4, 1958–October 25, 2013
Every word rang true, but they read like a catalog. Writing, I have realized, reflects the writer, not the subject. The tombstone embodied Marty: conflict-averse, hoping to placate everyone. The list did not add up to Momo. I had yearned for bolder art, and my failure said something about me too. I deferred to Marty instead of seizing the moment and creating art worthy of this woman, if that was even possible.
Loss had yawned over me the past year with daily reminders of my friend. The plants she had bequeathed to me, now gasping for water, hung from my ceiling; my phone became a minefield of photos and buried emails. I would rifle through contracts or sort through our old projects and feel fresh pinpricks of grief. I turned funny tales from our partnership over until they became smooth, comforting stones in my palm.
I had tried to find another business partner. I needed someone else, I knew that, to keep me from spinning tighter into self-criticism, to slow down and let my feelings catch up, to find happiness for myself, as she had taught me. I even met with a consultant who listened carefully over bad hotel coffee and said “You’re lucky if you get one or two partners like that in a lifetime. Don’t try to replace her—go out and seek many people.” So I found designers, producers, and accountants to help me run the business. I began a relationship with a kind man. Each person filled a hole in my life but, like the litany on the tombstone, couldn’t capture what I had lost. Death had rubbed its heel squarely on what vibrated and flourished between us, ending the world Momo lived in, of possibility, her quicksilver wit, the warmth that rose from her, her push to seek out new adventures.
I closed my eyes and imagined going home and calling Momo and telling her about this day, where we sang songs and prayed and grieved both privately and as a chorus. The group murmured on either side of me. The edge of a cold breeze snuck down my collar. I folded my arms and held myself tighter.
What’s with the waterworks? Life is waiting for you down the hill, my dear.
I never visit Momo’s gravesite, nor do I want to. She sits next to me when I labor over a script or edit a commercial, and even now, as I try to craft this memory of her. I did not have the right words to say to her in her final weeks. I could not conjure poetry for her at her service. My words failed me then, they fail me still, and I keep trying. I want to breathe life back into the shining energy that filled my days. I want to make Momo alive for you on this simple piece of paper.
Do words matter? I visit Momo’s blog and linger over her final post, written weeks before she died. The stamp of that last date floats farther away from me, but the words still leave fresh yearning.
Seven years of debilitating treatments, anxious scan results, and the occasional self-diagnosis. It’s a lot to go through to drop a few pounds. Seven very precious years spent with my magnificent husband, my daughter and stellar friends. Seven years going on eight years with nine years in reach and ten years hardly a stretch.
Knowing all that and still, I live like there is no tomorrow.
Linda Button is a storyteller and writer for a large non-profit. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Magazine, PBS, and elsewhere. Her memoir-in-progress, Fight Song, explores mental illness, martial arts and learning to let go, despite love.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy Editor: Peter Rubin